Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crude Pipeline Pump Station Okayed in Dunham: Report

A plan to bring crude oil from Canada to Maine through the Townships has gotten a green light from Quebec's agriculture commission, says this report in the Voix de l'Est. The 67-year-old, 380-kilometre pipeline, built to bring crude to Canada during World War Two by skirting the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic, may soon be reworked to pump oil in the other direction, from Montreal to Portland. The pipeline runs three feet below the surfare of the ground.

A pumping station near Dunham was just approved by the agriculture commission. Maine Today has reported on the project in this story. More information is available from the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line company website here.

Dunham Old-Growth Forest Cut Without Permit: Report

Hundreds of old-growth trees near Dunham have been chopped without a permit, says this Voix de l'Est story. (Also covered in this La Presse story.) Dunham mayor Marcel Poirier is said to have told the Voix de l'Est that the cutting was done without a municipal permit, but he refused to call it a violation of town regulations, describing the forestry activity as a "lack of communication." The company involved is now said to be seeking a permit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Amazing Recovery After Accident At Dangerous Corner

Albert Nerenberg, a writer and filmmaker in West Bolton, writes in this moving Montreal Gazette feature about Alexa Tremblay, his friend and researcher, and her remarkable recovery from a coma after a car accident at a dangerous corner where Route 104 (Knowlton Rd.) meets Route 215 (the road from Bromont to Sutton). Albert says Alexa's story shows the brain's amazing power to heal.

Folks, please be super-careful at this intersection, especially as conditions deteriorate in winter. Just a week after Alexa's accident, I came across an older woman being cared for by paramedics after she was hit on her bike by an SUV at exactly the same spot. Friends tell us of lots of other accidents there, too.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Lac Brome Stirs Up Algae

[From the website of Renaissance Lac Brome]

Que se passe-t-il cette semaine à RLB ?


Renaissance Lac Brome s'oppose à la permanentisation de 2 tracés de ski nautique

Renaissance Lac Brome a récemment pris position ferme relativement à la permanentisation de 2 tracés de ski sur le lac Brome. Rappelons qu'une demande a été faite par un groupe de plaisanciers pour que 2 ouvrages de tracés de ski soient autorisés sur le lac, l'un au sud du lac, près du marais, l'autre face aux condos Inverness.

Compte tenu des grands efforts qui sont actuellement faits pour la restauration du lac et compte tenu des impacts environnementaux de ce projet, RLB estime qu'il est inapproprié de permettre un tracé de ski dérogeant à la réglementation en vigueur, tracé situé à environ 50 mètres du milieu humide et à moins de 2 mètres de profondeur d'eau.

Il apparaît beaucoup plus cohérent de surseoir pour le moment à ce type de demande et de l'intégrer dans la démarche de préservation du lac et de ses affluents impliquant une réflexion globale sur l'activité nautique au lac Brome.

Dans le même dossier, la Ville, par voie de résolution unanime du Conseil, a déclaré ne pas s'opposer à la demande pour autant que des "balises sévères et rigoureuses soient fixées quant à l'exploitation des tracés de ski concernés". Le comité d'environnement de la Ville s'était préalablement opposé à l'autorisation du tracé de ski à proximité du milieu humide. L'ACA a également émis un avis défavorable.

Rappelons que c'est le gouvernement fédéral qui a juridiction sur la navigation et que la sécurité nautique et le droit public à la navigation constituent ses critères d'évaluation face à ce type de demande. Les questions environnementales ne sont pas de son ressort ce qui risque de créer un malheureux dénouement.

Rappelons finalement que le lac Brome et son bassin versant sont de plus en plus le point de mire du Québec et que les comportements écologiquement responsables de tous les citoyens sont essentiels au succès.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Doing the Bromont Hustle

While stagnation mars the wellbeing of many small communities, one Quebec town is in the midst of a boom. Some say it's not the best way to spark a revival

By Alex Roslin
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Montreal Gazette
[original story]

Amid the historic Loyalist villages of the Eastern Townships, the fast-growing town of Bromont is the brash young upstart that the old-timers like to complain about. But the complaints are increasingly mixed with grudging respect.

That's because in a region that's experienced a long, grinding economic decline and loss of its young to Montreal, Bromont is a boom town. Nestled in the side of the Appalachian ski hill of the same name, the town of 6,000 is a veritable Quebec boom town.

Founded 45 years ago out of cow pastures and forests by Roland Désourdy, patriarch of the Désourdy construction dynasty, Bromont was conceived as an idyllic village kissed by nature and a high-tech hub that, in Désourdy's words, would be no less than "one of the most prestigious places in the world."

While manufacturers flee other Townships communities due to a soaring loonie, Bromont has expanded employment at its high-tech industrial park to 5,000 and has drawn marquee names like IBM, with 2,800 workers at its 850,000-square-foot plant, General Electric and Quebecor World.

The town's New England-style outdoor mall has attracted over a dozen boutiques and restaurants and is slated to balloon in size, while Ski Bromont is now Canada's biggest night-ski destination and the Bromont Olympic Horse Park is the province's leading equestrian venue.

With a population that's doubled since 1991, Bromont now finds itself with a Montreal-style traffic disaster during rush hour. The newcomers, including many young families, are so plentiful that Bromont, rather than wait for funds from the provincial education ministry, is itself building an expansion annex at the elementary school, which, like the town's new library, will use an environmentally friendly design.

Bromont is, in fact, the only community in the regional school board where the student population is still growing.

The community's success stands in sharp contrast to a growing malaise in much of the rest of the Townships and many other farflung regions of the province. A soaring loonie and slowing global economy have pole-axed many towns reliant on forestry, manufacturing or tourism. Out-migration of young people, already a well-established trend, threatens to turn into an exodus.

Forty-five kilometres east of Bromont along Highway 10, the ski town of Magog has been rocked by manufacturing-plant closings that have cost 2,000 jobs in the past three years.

And now, one of the pillars of the Townships economy, skiing, is being menaced by global warming. The ski season in southern Quebec is expected to fall from four months to two by 2040 because of climate change, two Université de Montréal geographers, Bhawan Singh and Christopher Bryant, reported in a study last February.

Does all this spell doom for the small towns of Quebec? What makes some communities like Bromont thrive, while others wither? Is there some secret other villages can duplicate?

The debate isn't new, but it's taken on a new urgency amid today's economic upheavals. Complicating the question is the fact that small-town residents often have competing visions for their development. In fact, not everyone thinks Bromont's quick growth is a good thing at all. "We don't want to become another Bromont," is a common refrain in much of the Townships.

The question is, how can small towns survive without sacrificing their smallness and distinctive charm? Or should country folk cut their losses and start practicing how to parallel park in the big city?


Twenty-five kilometres southeast of Bromont, the hard times hitting the Townships have even hurt the tony enclave of Knowlton. While Bromont's sidewalks and shops are jammed, Knowlton is bedeviled by several vacant storefronts.

Much of the summer, Knowlton's downtown strip of historic buildings and quaint little stores has been nearly as quiet as Deadwood before a gunfight. Wintertime is quieter still.

The decline is all the more remarkable considering Knowlton boasts the region's most expensive real estate - and thus plenty of local shopping power - and is a fixture on tourism brochures.

Yet, Knowlton retailers have been hurting because of the drop-off in American tourism and newly opened box stores in nearby Cowansville. Winter tourism was further smacked down by the closing of the Glen Mountain ski resort in 2004.

"Tourism is a very, very fickle industry," says Natacha Racicot of the local 150-member Chamber of Commerce. "Many years ago, Knowlton was booming. Now it's gone downhill."

The situation is so dire that, last year, Knowlton called in the small-town mayor's version of the paramedics - the Fondation Rues Principales.

This 20-year-old Quebec City-based nonprofit helps hard-luck communities get back on their feet and has worked in 200 towns - and even some big-city neighbourhoods - on revitalization projects, many of them in beleaguered regions like the Gaspé and Abitibi.

Racicot is the co-ordinator of Knowlton's involvement with the project.

The foundation's course of treatment, which typically lasts three years, starts with getting residents talking about the problems and possible solutions. Those can be little things like downtown beautification with flowers, attractive signage, nicer parks and wider sidewalks to more profound changes like diversifying the local economy.

Often, getting everyone talking is the hardest step - and the most important. A common theme in many struggling small towns is internal conflict and a lack of community participation, said Jean-Yves Bernard, the foundation's project coordinator for Knowlton.

"Villages often come when they're in crisis. When we arrive, there's often an impasse. They're tried everything, but it's not working. They say, 'It's just you who can help us,'" he said.

The answer: mobilizing the community to save itself.

The poster child for this approach is Murdochville, a village of 1,000 in the hinterland of the Gaspé. When local copper mining operations shut down in 2002, the community held a referendum in which 65 percent of residents voted to close the town and leave.

But some refused. They called in the Fondation Rues Principales, and Bernard was dispatched to see what he could do. It was like being sent to a war zone. Violence had erupted between the two sides because shutting the town meant residents would be entitled to compensation payments.

"People were crying at our meetings," Bernard said.

His task for the project's first year: just getting the community to put aside the bitterness over its fate and talk. It started with little events-a community barbecue, a Christmas party, a celebration to mark the town's 50th anniversary. The events reminded people about the sense of community they had enjoyed and rekindled hope.

Residents organized a local news bulletin to encourage involvement in village life and refurbished their downtown. Today, Murdochville has transformed itself from beaten-down mining town to greenie mecca, complete with vibrant outdoor tourism activities and one of Canada's most efficient wind-power parks.

"Some [struggling] municipalities will use traditional means to get help, like lobbying governments," Bernard said. "Other take the democratic route and try to mobilize the riches of the population."

That formula also paid off for Burlington, Vt. Its story was typical of many Canadian and U.S. small towns. A new suburban mall was sapping its downtown, where historic buildings had already been blemished by misguided urban-renewed policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite a beautiful view of Lake Champlain, Burlington's waterfront was a dilapidated eyesore.

So Vermont's largest city called in the organization that helped inspire Bernard's foundation-the Main Street Program of the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The program, created in the 1970s, has found that for every $1 invested in measures like building façade improvement, marketing, nicer signs and energy conservation, communities get back $25 in economic activity.

In Burlington, the program helped spark a downtown renewal that included a four-block walking mall focused on independent retailers and renovating the waterfront with a park and science centre.

Burlington's efforts won it national recognition, including the Main Street Program's 1997 award for revitalization and, in 2007, being named the "Best Green Place to Live in America" by Country Home Magazine and "One of the Best Places to Retire Young" by

Also last year, Burlington took the top place in a survey of 17 small-town downtowns in southern Quebec and Vermont by the Fondation Rues Principales.

Back in the Townships, Pauline Quinlan, the mayor of Bromont, has had a hectic few months. In May, the town held its annual Fête du Chocolat, followed by national and international horse competitions at the equestrian park, an art festival and a series of Sunday-in-the-park musical and dance performances.

The events are one of the secrets of Bromont's success, said Quinlan. "We want to create life in this village."

Also key has been preserving the town's natural and built heritage. That has meant leaving plenty of big trees to shade the downtown strip and requiring real-estate projects to preserve 40 percent or more of the area as a nature preserve.

And in order to attract telecommuters and the self-employed, the town has expanded high-speed internet access to 90 percent of its households.

In other parts of the Townships, some residents pin revival hopes on an influx of babyboomers. Demographers say boomers are quitting big cities as they approach retirement and moving to the countryside.

"This is a great opportunity for our region," said Peter Stastny, a former economic-development official who now works as a manager of Construction Iron Hill, based in Knowlton.

"Communities that provide boomers with the environment they want will thrive."

Others say it's vital to help young people stay in rural areas and attract new young families. That means offering a vibrant cultural life, work, good schools, environmentally conscious policies and affordable housing.

"There are people who say, 'We don't have a problem. We are a retirement community,'" said Jacques Lecours, a retired urban planner who is president of Knowlton's Rues Principales committee.

"Personally, I think to have a community that is healthy and vibrant, it is essential to have young families and young people."

TAGS: Eastern Townships, Knowlton, Bromont, Magog


Fondation Rues Principales

Main Street Program (of the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Green Dream Comes True

LEED Comes to Canada

Townships house is a prototype of environmentally friendly homes of the future

Alex Roslin

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Montreal Gazette

Alexandre Thibodeau takes in the spectacular view of the lush green, mist-shrouded Glen Valley below his mountainside home in the Eastern Townships. A series of Applachian peaks cascade to the south into Vermont.

Thibodeau doesn't know their names. He'll figure that out when life slows down a little for him and his partner, Marie-Eve Cloutier.

They've had two children, Léopol and Mirek, and, when Mirek was just a month old in early 2006, they moved here to the hamlet of West Bolton from Montreal in order to oversee work on their green dream home.

The 2,200-square-foot home nestled among tall maples and birch will include features like straw bail insulation, passive solar heat from a bank of windows, concrete floors to store heat and a custom combo of geothermal piping and an ultra-efficient masonry heater.

After two years, the house is almost ready to be lived in, with the custom-made, super-insulated windows to be installed in coming weeks.

It's been an amazing journey for the first Canadian home to be accepted under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building standard of the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council, the most stringent certification process of its kind in North America.

Thibodeau, who has a bachelor's degree in architecture, designed the house himself to achieve a LEED platinum rating, the council's highest level of certification.

Conceived in 1998 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and ecologically minded building professionals, LEED has quickly become the most widely recognized green-building standard in Canada and the U.S.

Projects get points for reducing energy consumption with solar or geothermal heating and good insulation, lowering water intake and using recycled or sustainably produced building materials that don't emit chemicals like formaldehyde.

It's all part of one of the fast-growing areas of combating climate change -a revolution in the building industry.

The U.S. market for green building jumped from $7 billion in 2005 to $12 billion last year and is projected to rise to $60 billion by 2010, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Over 11,000 projects totaling 330 square kilometres of floor space are LEED-certified or working through the certification process in the U.S.

The stakes for the environment are huge. Putting up and maintaining buildings and homes accounts for 70 per cent of U.S. electricity consumption and 39 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Canada, where LEED was first implemented in 2004, interest has exploded, too. Nine square kilometres of building floor space have been LEED certified in Canada or are working toward that goal.

Municipalities like Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston and Ottawa have pledged to build some of all of their facilities to LEED standards, as have the provincial governments of British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

At the Canadian Green Building Council's first national convention last week in Toronto, interest was so great that the exhibitors' floor space had to be expanded three times to accommodate participants, said Nancy Grenier, spokeswoman for the council, which has 1,600 member companies and nearly 5,000 individual members in its eight chapters-mostly architects and other building professionals.

Much of the demand is motivated by the most pragmatic of reasons: building green makes sense financially.

A 2003 study of LEED commercial buildings for the state of California found that while they cost 2 per cent more upfront than conventional construction, the investment begets long-term savings of 12 to 16 times that amount due to lower energy, water and maintenance bills and improved worker productivity and health from better indoor air quality.


So far, however, LEED has mostly been applied in large commercial, industrial and government buildings.

Thibodeau's project in West Bolton was the first in Canada to be accepted into a new U.S. LEED pilot project for the residential sector, which is intended to spread green building to home construction.

Since Thibodeau signed on in 2006, about 100 other Canadian residential projects have been accepted.

Bowing to the demand, the Canadian Green Building Council, which adapts LEED standards to this country's harsher climate, announced earlier this year it would start work on a unique "LEED Canada for Homes" standard specifically intended for residential construction. It's to be launched in spring 2009.

The council's goal is to use LEED to inspire changes in the broader construction industry and reduce the environmental footprint of 1 million new and existing Canadian homes and 100,000 other buildings by 2015.

In Montreal, Emmanuel Blain-Cosgrove is delighted. "After 10 years of screaming in the dark, it's nice to see the field taking off," he said.

Blain-Cosgrove is the owner of Écohabitation, a Montreal ecological-building consulting firm. He sits on the committee that is designing the made-in-Canada LEED standard.

He also helped pioneer green residential building in Canada with his renovation of a Mile End house to U.S. LEED standards in 2006.

He got the idea from Thibodeau. Blain-Cosgrove, who comes from a family of carpenters and building professionals, was already renovating the house using an environmentally-friendly design.

Thibodeau heard about the project and called Blain-Cosgrove up, saying he had just managed to convince the U.S. Green Building Council to accept his West Bolton house in into LEED.

At first, the U.S. council had hesitated about taking in a Canadian house because it felt the Canadian Green Building Council should certify projects in this country. At the time, however, the nascent Canadian body had its hands full just trying to get LEED going in the industrial and commercial sectors.

Thibodeau persisted and won the U.S. council over, opening the door for other Canadians.

"(Thibodeau) is the original one to put the pieces together in Canada," said Blain-Cosgrove.

In April, Blain-Cosgrove was chosen as Quebec's first LEED-certification inspector for residential projects by the U.S. Green Building Council. Builders here will no longer have to pay for an inspector to come from Vermont to certify that a project complies with LEED standards.


Back in West Bolton, Thibodeau has fired up his high-performance brick masonry heater to take the edge off a cool rainy day in early June. The heater burns wood that he plans to harvest from his five-acre lot in order-another way to reduce the home's reliance on outside energy.

The heat will radiate through the house from a stylish round two-storey brick-and-lime chimney that Thibodeau and Cloutier have just finished building.

It's part of an innovative system of energy efficiency that Thibodeau estimated will reduce the house's heating bill by 70 percent and eliminate the need for air conditioning.

Also involved is an adapted geothermal air-exchange system-70 metres of pipes embedded in the ground behind the house that will draw in warm air during winter and cool air in summer. Heat during the winter will also come from a solar-heated wall-a black-painted steel siding on the roof that the sun will warm to as much as 74 degrees Celsius.

An automated control system will control the house's temperature by tapping into the various heating and cooling systems through an elaborate system of ducts, fans and shutters.

"This house is supposed to be able to take care of itself," Thibodeau said. "I always dreamed when I had a family that we'd live in a home that was a little crazy."

Thibodeau's heating system has attracted the interest of Hydro-Quebec, which will consider funding a study of how it performs under its technical innovation program.

Also bringing down the heating bill is a ridiculous amount of insulation. The roof will achieve an R60 insulation rating (R30 is the industry standard for new homes in Quebec), while straw bails in the walls will insulate them to R30 (R15 is the standard).

The house will also use dramatically less water because rainwater will be collected in underground cisterns for washing clothes and watering the four-terrace, 820-square-foot garden on the house's "green roof."

Some of the features were challenges because so few homes have been built according to LEED standards, especially in Canada. One was getting an environmentally friendly source of lumber for the houseframe.

Thibodeau spent weeks contacting suppliers to try to find lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been harvested in a sustainable manner. No luck. The companies with FSC-certified woodlots were using it for paper products, not lumber.

The one Quebec company able to provide FSC-stamped lumber ordinarily sold its entire supply in Germany and didn't have any in stock, so the wait would have been three months.

In the end, he found a farmer in the Townships who harvested the needed trees from his woodlot in a sustainable way.

Thibodeau hopes LEED's spread will help spark a market for suppliers of green-friendly wood and other construction material.

"The first contractor to call up and ask for FSC wood is going to pay top dollar. But if large developers begin ordering it in quantity, lumber companies are going to start fighting for that market."

Ultimately, he hopes small projects like his will help convince the mass real-estate market to embrace environmentally-friendly design. "Building yourself is difficult. We're not the typical project."

Blain-Cosgrove agreed. "The whole purpose (of LEED) is market transformation. Certification is not the end. That's just a means to greening the industry."

Yet, he said homebuilding and renovation aren't likely to change very quickly without much larger government incentives for going greening. Research shows such incentives are among the most efficient uses of government subsidies to cut overall greenhouse-gas emissions, he said.

"Where we live changes how we live," Thibodeau said. "If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be in architecture."

SIDEBAR: What Makes a House Green

- Hot heat: Heating bills will be cut an estimated 70 percent by a combination of a high-performance brick masonry heater, passive solar heating from a huge bank of south-facing windows, a geothermal air-exchange system and a solar-heated wall on the roof. The geothermal system will also bring in cooler air in summer, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

- Smart controls: The futuristic house has an automated control system to regulate interior temperature by tapping into the various heating and cooling systems through an elaborate system of ducts, fans and shutters.

- Insane insulation: Piles of insulation will give the roof an R60 insulation rating (R30 is the industry standard for new homes in Quebec), while straw bail walls will achieve R30 (R15 is the standard).

- Green wood: Wood for the houseframe comes from a sustainably cut, local woodlot.

- Non-polluting materials: Interior materials were chosen that don’t emit toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.

- Water: Rainwater will be collected in underground cisterns for washing clothes and watering the four-terrace, 820-square-foot garden on the house’s “green roof.”

For more information:

- Alexandre and Marie-Eve's website

[TAGS: Eastern Townships]

Monday, May 12, 2008

Knowlton Declares War on Yard Sales

Staple of summer in the Eastern Townships threatened by new bylaw restricting garage sales that aims to keep community from looking “junky”

Alex Roslin
Sunday, May 11, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

As the mercury soars and hockey season draws nearer to an end, Canadians are getting ready for that other great national pastime: the garage sale.

Perhaps nowhere has that tradition been stronger than the Eastern Townships village of Knowlton, a favourite destination of antiquing tourists hoping for that rare find because of the many old farms and sprawling estates.

But now, residents say the tradition is threatened by a new town bylaw restricting the sales in an effort to keep the community from looking “junky,” in the words of Richard Wisdom, the mayor of Lac Brome, the amalgamated municipality that encompasses Knowlton.

The bylaw has sharply divided this ordinarily tranquil, mostly rural municipality of 6,000, where country friendliness has suddenly been replaced by bitter recriminations.

The debate, for some, highlights a rich-poor divide in this tony enclave that used to be the weekend retreat of Montreal’s blue-blooded anglo elite but now has a more diverse population and is struggling to revive its flagging economic base and attract young families and new businesses.

The dispute started in January when the town announced it would adopt a bylaw limiting yard sales to two weekends each year—in May and September—with a permit required to put on a sale and hefty fines for scofflaws.

Wisdom said the bylaw was motivated by “numerous” complaints from a “silent majority” of residents and that the town was merely mimicking other Townships communities like Magog and Bromont that have restricted yard sales, too.

“We’ve got to clean up,” he said.

“We want Knowlton to be a nice place where people can walk around without poles being littered with crap.”

He said some residents had sales every weekend and were essentially operating unofficial flea markets, while failing to remove signs from community hydro poles.

“The town would be peppered (with posters). Sometimes, there would be three on a post,” he said.

“We were getting criticism of how junky the town was looking.”

While many residents agree the posters were getting out of hand, the proposed bylaw provoked an angry response in an area where yard sales are a popular seasonal ritual—a time to drop in on neighbours, bump into friends and renew community bonds after a long winter.

The tradition is so engrained some aficionados get together to visit several sales as a group, plotting optimal routes to maximize browsing time.

Even the colourful signs for the sales have a quirky tradition of their own, often adorned with glitter and balloons.

“Yawd Friggin’ Sale Knowlton,” reads a poster for one sale in a photo published on the website.

June Call, a lifelong Knowlton resident and health-care giver at a local seniors’ home, said the sales help poorer people pick up items they need and that the town could have responded with fines for errant posterers, instead of restricting everyone.

“It just made me think this isn’t right; it’s not fair,” she said.

“The whole community is super-angry about this,” said Sonia Fréchette, who moved to Knowlton four years ago to open the Brocante Casa antique store.

“I never heard a complaint. To the contrary, it seems to be part of the culture,” she said.

“My first reaction was: ‘What the #%^&!’” resident David Milligan wrote in a post on his website.

While Milligan agreed some yard sales are “downright creepy” and offer only “the most questionable of junk,” he called the bylaw “draconian.”

“With tourism hitting all time lows in Lac Brome, how could someone have thought it would be a good idea to make a great Canadian cultural event practically illegal?” he asked in his post.

“Are they trying to launch a death-blow to Lac Brome?... Knowlton is more than just wealthy estate owners in a land of gated domains after all!”

The yard sale clamp-down prompted dozens of angry residents to attend a town council meeting in March. Before they could voice their opinions, Wisdom announced the town had backed down and would revise the bylaw.

“We have listened to you,” he said, promising to propose a new bylaw at the next council meeting in May.

What happened next stoked even more controversy. In April, the town put up notices saying it would adopt a revised version of the bylaw at a special meeting the following day.

Bylaw opponents scrambled to mobilize residents to attend the meeting, and about 30 showed up, already suspicious because of the short notice. A shouting match erupted when details of the new bylaw were announced.

The new rules would allow yard sales on five specific weekends between May and September. If it rains, residents would have to wait until the next designated weekend.

They would also be allowed to put up a single poster on their property and up to two others on neighbours’ properties, if they have permission.

Violators of the bylaw would face fines of $300 to $1,000. The new bylaw was adopted by the town council despite protests from residents, who said the restrictions were still too onerous and made it difficult for those living on isolated roads to attract customers.

“We were furious,” said Michele Brunt-Martel, a local daycare owner who has lived in Knowlton five years.

“People were yelling ‘dictator’ and ‘referendum.’ There was shouting, but there was reason for it.”

Brunt-Martel said she had wanted to hold a yard sale this summer to earn some needed pocket money and get rid of a few unwanted things.

But she said the restriction on postering means she’s unlikely to get much traffic on her isolated street, where she typically sees half a dozen cars pass in an entire day.

June Call is in the same position, living on a road with few passers-by. She said she rarely has garage sales herself, but doesn’t want to lose the ability to have one. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

Other critics said the bylaw will hurt tourism in a community already struggling with a decline in visitors after the recent construction of large box stores in nearby Bromont and Cowansville drew traffic from Knowlton’s smaller boutiques.

The town is studying how to revitalize its downtown, which is marred by several shuttered storefronts.

Fréchette, the antique store coowner, said the bylaw won’t help. “It will reduce tourism. Tourists like the sales. Knowlton is renowned for that,” she said.

She said the town would do better to focus on revitalizing. “Empty businesses dissuade tourists more than garage sales do.”

More reading:

Maclean's scribe Martin Patriquin blogs about the controversy here and The Gazette publishes this letter and editorial note about Knowlton's yard sales brouhaha. Plus, here's David Milligan's post about all this on his website (scroll down).

[TAGS: Knowlton, Eastern Townships, garage sales, yard sales]

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Tasting maple syrup is all in a day’s work for sensory analyst working on grading system

Alex Roslin
Friday, April 25, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

Jacinthe Fortin has a dream job for anyone with a sweet tooth—tasting maple syrups. She is a sensory analyst at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Food Research Centre in St-Hyacinthe, and she has smacked her lips on lots of syrup in order to study differences in their flavours.

Her conclusion: syrups have almost as much variety of tastes as wine. “It’s almost scandalous to sell syrup in a can. It has notes that resemble cognac or scotch. There are almost as many different subtleties and interesting notes as wine,” she said.

Now, Fortin’s cavity-inducing research is helping pave the way for a major North American-wide reform of the grading system for maple syrup.

The current grades, in place for decades, are based on the colour of the syrup, with the lightest, most uniform product considered the best. Some producers say that system doesn’t reflect the full variety of syrups and reduces the incentive to create more flavourful, premium varieties.

The revision effort could include a wide range of new syrup classifications based on flavour and artisanal production methods, like the old-fashioned approach of evaporating sap under a wood fire.

“When someone uses a very artisanal approach, the taste is certainly more refined,” said Bernard Perreault, marketing director at the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers’ Federation.

The new classifications will likely draw on a Maple Syrup Flavour Wheel that Fortin helped develop, which identifies 13 “flavour families” for syrups like vanilla, floral and fruity, plus 91 sub-categories, including firewood, roasted dandelion root, marshmallow, butter and honey.

Consumer taste-tasting to identify the best new flavour categories is expected to start this fall, with new classifications possibly ready by next year, said Perreault.

The reform is also aimed at creating a single grading system for Canada and the U.S. At present, different classifications are in place in Quebec, the rest of Canada and various U.S. states.

The reforms are being spearheaded by the Syrup Research, Development and Technology Transfer Centre, which is affiliated with the provincial agriculture and natural-resources ministries.

TAGS: Eastern Townships, maple syrup, sugar shack

Sap Season Not So Sweet

Maple Syrup
Harvest in Quebec this spring is suffering from weather extremes

Alex Roslin
Monday, April 21, 2008

The Montreal Gazette

The sunny days of spring might be a happy time for most Quebecers, but André Pollander is glum.

The weather has changed too fast from winter cold to spring warm, and Pollander’s sugar bush in the Eastern Townships has just about given up the ghost for the season.

Pollander’s 500 maple trees on his 20-acre farm have produced just one-third of their usual production this year before the sap has stopped flowing.

The cupboards are nearly bare of syrup in the boutique of his log-cabin-style Cabane à Sucre Pic Bois, nestled in the forest in Brigham. The harvest is so poor he won’t have a single jug to sell to retail customers after he sets aside what he needs for his restaurant and family.

The story is the same across most of Quebec, which produces 76 percent of the world’s maple syrup.

Spring temperatures must hover around freezing for a few weeks for the sap to run best, ideally alternating between 6 degrees Celsius during the day and -6 degrees at night.

The period when that happened this year was cut short by an extra-long winter and the quick rise of the mercury in April. Quebec’s 7,500 producers were also hurt by a massive winter snowfall that left some areas inaccessible, while ice storms froze the ground and tree roots, reducing sap flow.

Dianne Rhicard, coowner of the Owl Hoot Maple Farm in Stanbridge East, said production at her operation was only 470 gallons of syrup this year, instead of the usual 600.

It’s the same sour story at the Gaby-Pierre Maple Farm in Sutton, where coowner Gabrielle Tanguay said the harvest is 30 percent below the usual 1,500 gallons.

After an equally miserable harvest in 2007—one of the worst in 40 years—Pollander has a radical solution he thinks could help solve the industry’s misfortunes: recognizing hand-made, old-fashioned syrups like his own as a special brand.

He advocates a new industry-accepted “hand-made” or “produit du terroir” label to meet a fast-growing demand for premium maple syrup and related products like maple butter and pie.

Pollander said his own sales of such products have grown 20 to 25 percent annually for the past eight years, and such labeling would encourage many other small maple farmers now producing for personal consumption to sell their wares on the market and make up the supply shortfall.

Go to most large maple syrup farms across the province, and you’ll see long plastic tubes crisscrossing the forest to collect sap from thousands of maple trees. The sap is filtered and distilled by high-tech devices like reverse osmosis membranes and microfilters in order to boost the sugar content from two or three percent at the outset to 67 percent in final syrup form.

Mostly gone are the days when maple farmers would lug pails full of sap and stoke wood fires to evaporate it.

But some hardy souls stick to the old, labour-intensive method, and they say it pays off dramatically in taste.

“People who have never tried it say, ‘Wow, wow. What about that!’” Pollander said.

Indeed, his product has a light body with hints of flowers and almonds, while a store-bought brand is distinctly thicker and has a sharp, smoky taste. “The real maple flavour has been lost,” he said of syrups produced by the modern method.

Pollander is a fifth-generation maple farmer whose great-great-grandfather settled in the Eastern Townships in 1813. His sugar shack was named second-best in the province in a La Presse review.

He said maple syrups can come in as many different flavours as wine, influenced by region, climate, rainfall, soil conditions, type of maple tree, even the direction the tree is facing. Pollander thinks producers can benefit by promoting those differences.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Quebec’s agriculture ministry agree. They sponsored a study of syrup flavours by “sensory evaluation experts” and came out with a Flavour Wheel for Maple Products. It identifies 13 “flavour families” like vanilla, floral and fruity, plus 91 sub-categories, including firewood, roasted dandelion root, marshmallow, butter and honey.

The wheel also offers tasting tips akin to those for wine aficionados: “First, smell the syrup by taking three quick sniffs.” It advises a “small sip,” swirling the syrup in the mouth and concentrating for “about a minute” on the full range of flavours.

“It’s very similar to wine,” said Roger de Winter, an organic maple farmer in Sutton. “(The flavour variety) is just incredible.”

Pollander said today’s mass-production method depletes syrup of much of its flavour. Reverse osmosis, for example, is used in order to save energy costs by drawing out water before distillation is completed in oil-fired evaporators.

Some producers believe the process affects the flavour. “Osmosis removes the taste. The product doesn’t taste like anything,” Pollander said.

De Winter, who uses osmosis himself, agreed it “probably changes the flavour” if used too much on a batch of sap. “But with the cost of energy, I don’t think people have much choice if they are a large operation.”

Also affecting the flavour, Pollander said, is the widespread use of tubes to bring sap from trees—another labour-saving technique. He said the tubes are difficult to clean, and residue from past seasons and soap sometimes remains.

Pollander acknowledges his idea of premium labels is likely to be a tough sell to the handful of large producers that supply most of the Quebec’s swelling export market—worth $217 million last year. They buy and blend syrup from dozens of smaller farms and aren’t likely to be interested in a more complex classification system, he said.

At present, syrup in Quebec is graded only by its colour—with the clearest “extra-light” syrup qualifying as highest grade and commanding the top price.

The lightest syrup is generally produced early in the spring when sugar content in the sap is highest, which means it doesn’t need to be boiled as much to bring the ratio up to the required 67 percent.

Sap tapped later in the season can have 50 percent less sugar, which means extra boiling is needed. That, in turn, tends to leave the syrup darker and more caramelized, Pollander said.

Yet, he said many new customers prefer the lower-grade, darker variety because it has a more pronounced flavour, but he explains that taste is actually caramelized sugar, not maple. “They don’t know what they’re tasting,” he said.

Will Pollander’s idea catch on? De Winter said industry recognition of old-fashioned production techniques would be “very difficult to manage,” but he agreed the present system is flawed.

“That’s what mass production is. It lowers the cost but at the expense of quality.”

[TAGS: Maple syrup, Eastern Townships, André Pollander, cabane à sucre]

Magog’s World Crumbles

Bitterness and recrimination follow when Quebecor World closes down the town’s most important job provider

Alex Roslin
Saturday, April 19, 2008
The Montreal Gazette

Pierre Goulet had a feeling something was up when he went to work at the Quebecor World printing plant in Magog on Monday, March 31.

He never imagined the bright chilly spring day was his last working at the plant where he had been hired 27 years before as a lift operator at age 16—the first and only job he had ever had.

Instead, what he expected was the beginning of bargaining season on a proposal a new union contract. The existing contract was set to expire in June, and Goulet, the husky 43-year-old president of the plant’s union, was the man who had to negotiate a new one on behalf of the plant’s 380 employees.

To say things were up in the air was an understatement. Quebecor World had filed for bankruptcy in the midst of a financing crunch, the slowing U.S. economy and a soaring loonie.

What’s more, the company had just lost a big contract with Rogers Communications Inc. involving 70 titles like Chatelaine and Maclean’s.

The math was simple, and Goulet was under no illusions. “There is less product to print, and we had too many printing presses. We know that,” he said over a beer in a café in the community of 24,000, which sits on the shore of picturesque Lac Memphrémagog at the foot of the Mont Orford ski hill.

Just the same, Goulet was hopeful the contract talks would go well. The lost printing jobs weren’t handled at Magog, and the last two contracts in 2001 and 2006 had been negotiated amicably, he said.

In fact, the Magog plant was anything but a hotbed of union-management strife. It was widely known in the community that labour relations at the plant were excellent. The union rarely filed official grievances, and everyone seemed to get along like family.

In many cases, family is exactly what they were. Goulet’s wife worked at the plant 25 years as a press feeder. His two brothers had gotten jobs there after being laid off at other plants in the region that had closed in recent years—part of a wave of 2,000 manufacturing job losses to hit the community of 24,000 in the past three years.

A dozen other members of Goulet’s extended family also worked there. “Almost everyone was the same. It was a family at Quebecor World Magog.”

Many employees had been at the plant since the beginning in 1971, when Quebecor Inc.’s founder, the late Pierre Péladeau, built the ultramodern Magog facility, enabling his then-fledging firm to land its first U.S. magazine printing contracts and helping to launch the company as a media conglomerate.

With good salaries by standards in the region—averaging $17 to $18 an hour—Goulet said, “It was the job in Magog. We would tell people, ‘Hey, I work at Quebecor.’”


That Monday morning at the plant, Goulet sensed something was wrong right away. The normally cordial managers seemed to be avoiding him.

Finally, he was invited into a room where senior Quebecor World executives told him the plant was closing. “When?” he asked. “Immediately. We’re in the middle of stopping the equipment.”

Goulet headed to the cafeteria, where the rest of the employees had been gathered and told the news. Some came up to him later and wept, he said. “It was a very painful day to see people 50, 55 years old come to your office and cry.”

The news hit Magog like an avalanche. “They had good salaries,” said Yvan Morin, a Magog electrician whose father used to work for the plant as a subcontractor.

“People are talking about it a lot, especially with what’s happened lately with the other closings. It just doesn’t end.”

Luc Lepage, a vice-president at the Magog Ford dealership, said one of his employees has two kids who lost their jobs at the plant and 30 to 40 of his clients worked there. “It’s hard for them to stay in the region and find a similar job,” he said.

“It affects us much more than the closing of a tourist operation, where there are a lot of minimum-wage jobs. We need something else to support the economy or we will transform slowly into a town only for retirees, which is already what’s happening.”

At a Subway restaurant neighbouring the plant, where many employees were regulars, employee Jonathan Leclerc said only a handful have popped in since the closing. “I know some people are disappointed and others are angry because the company didn’t give any notice. People learned about it that morning,” he said.

The next day, Magog Mayor Marc Poulin held an emotional press conference at which he said he was “extremely frustrated” with the company. He said the Memphrémagog regional development centre, of which he is president, had tried unsuccessfully to meet Quebecor prior to the closing in order to discuss ways to help the plant financially. He said the offer had been rebuffed.

“Pierre Péladeau, who believed in Magog, today must be turning in his grave and crying,” he said.

“The first reaction was a feeling of desolation and eventually frustration toward the company,” said Denis Roy, a retired RCMP officer who is interim president of the 400-member Magog-Orford Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“They didn’t respond to the community.”

Two days after the mayor’s press conference came a sharp retort from Pierre Karl Péladeau, the son of the Quebecor patriarch and currently president of Quebecor Inc.

In an open letter to the mayor published in the Sherbrooke Tribune newspaper, “I was surprised to read and hear your comments,” he wrote. “Your references to my father are in bad taste.”

Péladeau went on to blame the closing on the plant’s union. The company had approached it in 2004 and 2005 in order to renegotiate the union contract. In exchange for upgrading an older printing press, he wrote that the company had wanted to cut the number of operators at the plant’s four printing presses.

“The union didn’t want to hear about it. Faced with this refusal, the managers of the company decided to make the investment elsewhere where it would be profitable,” he said.

“You would have rendered a much greater service to your community if you had used the prestige and influence of your office to denounce the organizations that render it impossible to make the investments essential to the survival of our businesses.”

Péladeau also said it wasn’t true that the company had ignored the community, noting that the plant’s director, Patrice Asselin, had indeed met the head of the regional development centre, Ghislain Goulet, to discuss the community’s suggestions.

Péladeau’s missive set off another bomb in the region. Ghislain Goulet (no relation to the union boss) retorted that the company didn’t respond to any of the community’s proposals.

“They didn’t look at solutions before closing the plant. The plant hadn’t seen much investment in years. We were open to discussing technological assistance, tax credits, acquiring the building and renting it back to Quebecor World,” he said.

“Both sides—management and the union—told us labour relations were very good. That’s why we were so surprised by Mr. Péladeau’s letter.”

Back at the union, Pierre Goulet said he was devastated. He said the company hadn’t needed the union’s permission for the proposed layoffs.

As well, he said other Quebecor plants that had attempted to reduce the number of operators on the printing presses had found themselves with manpower shortages.

“Because they couldn’t lay off a few people, they laid off nearly 380?” Goulet asked in disbelief. “They needed an excuse.”

What also irked Goulet was media coverage suggesting the Magog plant had been inefficient and aging.

In fact, he said, only one of the plant’s four presses needed an upgrade, while low employee turnover over three decades had honed a skilled workforce. Many employees had been proud to share their knowledge within the company, he said, with 20 percent joining various workplace committees devoted to improving operations.

“The company’s most productive plant in Quebec is Magog, even with our older equipment,” he said.

“If they had said it was the economic situation, that would have been fine. But what makes people in Magog feel bad was to hear we were unproductive and obsolete. If they are bankrupt, it’s not because of the workers. The management is responsible for keeping the company afloat, and they didn’t have the vision.”

Quebecor World spokesman Tony Ross refused to comment on the Magog plant’s productivity level, saying only that the closing wasn’t related to productivity or any lost printing contracts. “It was part of a retooling and restructuring program that was started three years ago.”

He also praised the plant’s employees. “It was a very good workforce at the Magog facility. If there are openings at other Quebecor World facilities, we will consider hiring them.”

Ross wouldn’t say whether other plants will be closed as part of the restructuring, but noted the process will be completed this year.


After Péladeau’s letter, Goulet called an assembly of the plant’s union members. Now, he didn’t know if the close-knit town would pin the closing on him. “I have to see them every time I go outside in Magog,” he said. “My whole family lost their jobs. That’s a lot of pressure.

Nervous, he arrived at the community hall two hours early in order to prepare his speech. “I wanted them to be proud of what they had done, so they could walk with their heads high.” He said the meeting went well. “Working for these people was my honour.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec government has responded with a $1-million fund to help the local economy.

But days later, there was more bad news for the community when reports suggested CSBS, a 100-employee bed linen manufacturer in Magog that is also under bankruptcy protection, was now unlikely to reopen.

Goulet said he is optimistic employees have the skills to find new jobs. But most will have to leave Magog to find decent salaries, he said.

Goulet, who has been appointed to a local “revival” committee exploring ways to revive the region’s economy, is himself thinking of moving to Montreal with his wife and three kids to find work.

“I don’t know what will happen with the village of Magog.”

[TAGS: Magog, Quebecor, Eastern Townships, Pierre Péladeau]

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Green Dream Home

Spring/Summer 2008
[original story]

Green Dream Home
Photo: Marie-Eve Cloutier

MONTREALERS Alexandre Thibodeau and Marie-Ève Cloutier never imagined the yo-yo ride their life would become when they set out in 2006 to build their environmentally friendly dream home on a mountainside in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

They had fallen in love with the site’s breathtaking view of the Appalachians and optimistically figured construction would take six months, and then they would move into the house with their children, twoyear- old Léopol and newborn Mirek. But countless unforeseen challenges brought delays and budget overruns.

Thibodeau, who has a bachelor’s degree in architecture, designed the house to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most stringent green-building standard in North America — applied so far mostly to large commercial and industrial buildings. His was the first house in Canada to be part of a LEED residential pilot program.

The first hurdle was building an access road up the steep mountain to the two-hectare site. Cost: $12,000, nearly double the contractor’s quote.

Finding “green” wood for the house frame also proved tougher than the couple thought: Thibodeau spent six weeks researching sources before he chanced on a local farmer who cuts trees in a sustainable way. Then, there was the problem of getting the large timbers up that mountain. Thibodeau’s solution: an elaborate set of pullies and cables hung from trees.

The 2,200-square-foot house, complete with creative touches like a two-storey kids’ bedroom and four rooftop garden terraces, will be heated with customized geothermal piping and an ultra-efficient masonry heater, fed with wood from their own lot. It will also feature straw-bale insulation, passive solar heat from a wall of south-facing windows, concrete floors to trap heat, and virtually no interior walls blocking heat flows.

As of January 2008, the young family had been staying with friends for nearly two years, but Thibodeau says they are finally close to moving in. Then, the inside finishing work will last another year. “It’s taken everything we have to get this far,” he says. “It’s taken all our capital — moral and financial.”

Despite their troubles, Thibodeau and Cloutier’s eyes light up during a tour of their green dreamhome-to-be. “Where we live changes how we live,” says Thibodeau. “I wanted to have an impact on the environment. It’s close to my heart.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Looking for something 'awesome'?; Townships blog's a good start

Friday, March 7, 2008
By Claire Biddiscombe
Sherbrooke Record

When Alex Roslin first moved to the Townships with his wife and two young daughters last June, he wanted to find the local treasures that the area has to offer. As many people would do, the former resident of Montreal, who now calls Knowlton home, turned to the Internet.

What he found was not quite what he had hoped for.

"It was almost like the Yellow Pages," Roslin said, citing lack of description as the biggest problem with the directories he found.

Roslin, a freelance writer, and wife Rhonda, a translator and copywriter, first toyed with the idea of creating a biannual directory of places in the Townships that were off the beaten track, but scrapped the idea for logistical reasons. They settled instead on a blog, as a medium that could be easily updated, easily found by others and allowed for readers to participate in building the site.

Now, Roslin regularly gets emails from locals who send suggestions and photos of places to add to his listings. He admits though that his site is very much a work in progress.

"We've scratched the surface of finding stuff just around the corner from here," he said, adding that the site lists a "disproportionate" number of businesses from the Knowlton end of the Townships.

"It's just an example of some of the places that stick out for me," he said.

Many of the places listed on "Best of the Eastern Townships," Roslin has visited himself, and has rated as "Very Good," or even "Awesome!"

Among his recent favourites are an Eastern European grocery store in Mansonville that he described as "better than anything in Montreal," and Amis de la Terre du Voisinage de Waterloo, a service that allows buyers to pick and choose from among hundreds of local farm-fresh products.

"People from Montreal who want really good food -- not gourmet, but good, fresh food -- where do they go? They go to the Townships," Roslin said.

He and his family initially chose the Townships not for the food, however, but to mirror the feeling of their former neighbourhood in Montreal. As much as they loved the city, they needed a larger home for their family to grow.

"Where we lived, it was pretty much like Sesame Street," he said. "We really wanted to find somewhere like that, but a community."

After looking in the Sutton area, they found their current home on the outskirts of Knowlton, which Roslin describes as a "slice of paradise."

Being away from the centre of everything in the big city has not affected his ability to work, Roslin said. He still writes for the publications that he worked with before the move, and added that he can now bring them new story ideas, based on happenings in the Townships.

"It's a great place for a writer to be," he said.

Roslin's blog can be found online at www.bestoftheeasterntown

• Photo: Alex Roslin is looking for cool spots from readers, so he can then share their great finds.

[TAGS: Eastern Townships, Knowlton, Sutton]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Moving to the Country

Had enough of the big city? Head for the hills!

By Alex Roslin
Good Times

April 2008

Harry Yates calls himself a city boy “from top to bottom.” Born to the crammed streets of Glasgow, he has lived in some of the world’s major metropolises—London, Paris, Munich, Bangkok—and worked as an ad writer in the pressure cooker of New York’s Madison Avenue.

The last thing this self-described “nature hater” ever thought he’d do was give it all up at age 68 and move to a drowsy village of barely 5,000 souls tucked away amid the cow pies, braying horses and dirt backroads of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. But after years of gentle cajoling from his wife, Monique, a Quebecer born in the province’s northerly Abitibi region, he agreed to move to the country. Monique’s goal, he says, was “creating a field of memory that will forever sustain our children and grandchildren with an abiding sense of place.” It sounded charming, but Yates was dubious.

Yet, after finding a beauty of a house (Yates describes it as “walking into a hug”) on a wooded 4.5-hectare (11-acre) lot near picturesque Lake Brome and the charming historic village of Knowlton, he quickly warm to life as a country squire.

The first thing he did after the movers left was head to a local pub, where he met a plasma physicist, a wild boar farmer, an airline pilot, a maple syrup mogul, a fashion model, and numerous locals, all “swapping fascinating yarns about the right way to install septic tanks,” he writes in a book he wrote about his experiences, Knowlton Chronicles: How My Wife Made Me Move to the Country Even Though I Hate Nature.

The book, which came out last fall, is a look at “the good and the bad, the sour and the sublime,” as he puts it, of moving to the “sticks,” written for the cavalcade of babyboomers and retired Canadians contemplating the same journey.

It’s a Trend

Yates is part of a country-wide renaissance of back-to-the-landers who are transforming rural Canada. They’re 50 years and up, and they’ve had it with the bad air, noise, and traffic of the big city. “As boomers age, they’re going to be moving out of the suburbs to places like this—Knowlton—or to the city core,” Yates says, as we sit in a village café overlooking a pretty pond where the occasional heron or duck alights.

The new back-to-the-landers aren’t the long-haired twentysomething hippies of the ‘60s. Many have grandkids and want to host them in a bucolic setting with lots of space and nature’s beauty all around. Others are still working but are tired of the go-go city pace; these folks are able to work at home or willing to put up with a longer commute. Some fortunate ones maintain two homes, living in the country most of the week but heading back into the city when they need some adventure.

Demographers are just starting to tweak to the trend. New research shows the back-to-the-land trend is actually repopulating some rural areas. According to a Statistics Canada study of urban-rural migration released last April, Canada’s three largest cities—Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—lost almost 10 per cent of their population to interregional migration between 1996 and 2001, while rural areas within commuting distance of those centres gained 35 per cent.

Baby boomers make up the single biggest group of newcomers to the country, second only to 30-year-olds with small kids in tow. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver lost about 30,000 people aged 55 to 64 from 1996 to 2001, while rural zones gained the same number. And as the Canadian population ages, a huge number of boomers are racing off to the country. Already, the highest ratio of retirement-age people can be found in a rural belt just outside the regular commuting range of the big cities. In this zone, 15 per cent of residents are 65 years old and up, compared to 11 per cent in the big three cities, Statistics Canada says.

“People are leaving to go beyond the cities before retirement,” says Jean-François Lachance, a demographer at the Quebec government’s statistics institute. “We hadn’t noticed this trend before.”

Lachance and his colleagues are studying the exodus with the help of newly available data on address changes in Quebec health-insurance records. The found large Quebec cities had a net loss of 2.1 per cent of their residents aged 54 to 56 due to migration to other areas between 1995 and 2005, while rural areas and small villages gained 7.4 per cent.

On the Move

The same thing is happening across the country. On the picturesque Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, boomers are pouring into Powell River, a 20,000-resident timber-and-fishing outpost that’s a five-hour car-and-ferry trip north of Vancouver, says Vicky Needham, a local real-estate agent.

Over 60 percent of Needham’s clients are out-of-towners, and almost all are in their 50s and 60s. “It’s huge,” she says. “They’re just tired of the big city life. They want a more relaxed lifestyle.” Most aren’t yet retired and are either able to work at home or locally as teachers, police officers or other professional jobs. Some keep a pied-à-terre in Vancouver and commute by plane—a 20-minute flight, which, Needham says, “costs less than what it does to park for a week in Vancouver.”

Another reason for making the move: galloping city house prices. “Prices here are still very reasonable,” Needham says. “A lot of people sell their house in Vancouver for $600,000 or $700,000 and get one here for $300,000 with an ocean view.”

Tom Cruickshank, 53, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith County Life, sees the same changes in his neck of the woods in Bewdley, ON, a tiny hamlet 90 minutes east of Toronto. In 2000, he moved with his wife into a 111-year-old Victorian house on a 30-hectare (75-acre) hobby farm. Cruickshank is a city boy who lived for years in Toronto and Montreal, but he now raises chickens and sheep and works from home. “I like that I can set my own pace. The simplicity of day-to-day life is the big reward. I had a romance with it,” he says.

He’s noticing an influx of like-minded city slickers—most of them aged 45 and up and still working. Many commute to Toronto every day by VIA Rail. “Eventually, they find a job out here or a way to work at home.”

Retirees also make up a large portion of the back-to-the-landers. John Lines, 75, and his wife Helen, 72, settled in an idyllic spot after John retired in 1991—a 5,200-square-foot house in secluded Upper Cape, NB, with ocean frontage on Baie Vert and a spectacular view of Nova Scotia across the water.

The house was originally built by Helen’s ancestors about 200 years ago—near as anyone can guess—and it has been in her family since. The original dwelling had only two rooms, but successive generations added rooms as the family grew. “It’s sort of a living museum,” Helen says.

John, born in Toronto, was far from being a country person. The couple had lived in many of Canada’s biggest cities where he had been stationed during a 32-year career in the military. “Our friends thought we were crazy” to move to a remote corner of New Brunswick, he says. “Now when they pass through, they say they understand.”

“It helps keep the family together. Our children come to stay over with our grandchildren. That’s important to me,” Helen says.

The invasion of city folks is changing parts of rural Canada, repopulating some areas that were hard-hit by an exodus of people. In Powell River, employment at the local pulp-and-paper mill has declined from 2,000 in its heyday to just 600 today, but the community has been revitalized by the arrival of the boomers, Needham says.

In Quebec, a mass flight from resource-dependent regions like Lac St. Jean and the Gaspé is being partly offset by city dwellers moving to other areas, like the Laurentians and Eastern Townships.

The new arrivals are also helping to foster diversity and breathe new life into their adopted communities. In Power River, many are settling in an older, once-rundown neighbourhood where they are refurbishing the historic character homes. “It’s been great for the city,” Needham says.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

So what’s life like for the country squire? There are some important cons you should weigh alongside the pros before you head off to the land of pickups and honey.

If you’re used to a city where you can walk a lot of places, a big change is at hand. You’ll be burning gas to visit friends, go shopping and maybe even pick up your mail at the community postbox or post office.

That was one of the hardest adjustments for Harry Yates. He sighs as he talks about how he loved strolls in his former neighbourhoods in Montreal and New York. Worse, he and his wife needed to get a second car when they moved to the country. “You’re tied to a car,” he says.

Another problem in many farflung areas: health care. Vicky Needham says the lack of medical specialists in her isolated town has been an obstacle stopping some retired people from coming.

Yates, now 74, is starting to think about his medical needs, too. That’s one reason he and his wife rented a pied-à-terre in Montreal this fall, after six years in Knowlton. The apartment brings them closer access to medical help Yates may need as he gets older.

The other reason for getting the apartment: while Yates adores his country hideaway and village life, the city still runs deep in his veins, and he occasionally yearns for an extravagant lunch at a chic city bistro or a stroll in Old Montreal.

“Country living is not for everyone,” says John Lines. “I wouldn’t advocate this for someone who loves the excitement of the city.”

If you can afford it, he suggests, do what he and his wife did: hold onto your city place for a while when you move to the country, just in case you don’t like it.

In the plus column: your new neighbours. “I never had a problem making friends anywhere I went,” Yates says, “but it’s easier here because people come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re the new guy. I’m so-and-so.’” Needham agrees: “Anyone who moves here says they can’t believe how friendly it is.”

Cultural and ethnic homogeneity can be a drawback in much of rural Canada, but there are many pockets with flourishing diversity. Power River has a large Italian minority—descendants of workers who came to work in the mill in the 1920s and ‘30s. Other farflung areas boast a strong First Nations presence, including museums, historical sites, and eco-tourism.

John Lines says his area of New Brunswick is full of cultural events, including the arts scene in the university town of Sackville, whereas it was Ottawa, in fact, that he felt was “very insular.”

What about fitting in? In much of rural Canada, the locals go back five or six generations—and much more in the case of Aboriginal residents. Do they look kindly on newcomers?

“I’m from away, and I’ll always be from away,” Lines says. “If I suggest something should be changed, people will say, ‘What do you know? You’re from away.’ You have to work your way into the community. It’s not a given.”

Lines’s solution: volunteering. Having worked as a structural engineer, he pitched in to oversee the refurbishing of a 180-year-old stone house for a local historical society museum—a six-year undertaking. “I figure it’s now payback. It’s my turn to give something back.”

For Yates, the biggest worry isn’t fitting in with the local people—his answer was to head to the village pub, where he made friends arm-bending in no-time—but the local critters. Six years of rural living still haven’t put him quite at ease about the creatures of the forest, from skunks on up to cougars. As he shows me around his property, he stops by a pretty stream and gazes fearfully at the woods on the other side, filled, he is sure, with bears, coyotes and moose just waiting to do him in.

“I’m still a bit leery of wildlife waiting for me in the driveway when I come home,” he says, laughing. But he says he hopes his grandchildren won’t inherit his “weird perturbations,” having experienced at his little country slice of heaven what Shakespeare called “a green thought in a green shade.”

[TAGS: Country living, retirement, baby boomers, Eastern Townships, Knowlton]